TV's Biggest Critic, TV's Biggest Fan (televisionary) wrote,
TV's Biggest Critic, TV's Biggest Fan

The Wizard of Westphall


If you are not familiar with the plot and concepts offered in NBC's "St. Elsewhere," and even CBS's "Newhart" and "Dallas," be careful because this discussion deals with elements of those programs. So you are cautioned not to read if you are unfamiliar or you do not want to know this information. With that proviso... continue reading...

Not too long ago, I was pointed to a piece about the character Tommy Westphall, from the above mentioned St. Elsewhere. This program was one of my all-time favorites for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was the non-traditional approach it had to both its characters and its storylines, and the things they did during the series... there were many "wraparound" concepts and textures, there was a lot going on that you could only perceive if you paid close attention to it. Plus, the show's writers were clearly pop culture junkies, just like me, so scattered throughout the run of the series were references to various elements, including other programs, films, celebrities, you name it.

As a brief example... In Episode 93, "Where There's Hope, There's Crosby," William Daniels, who played the pompous and bombastic Dr. Mark Craig, needed to have hand surgery. So he goes to Philadelphia and has a consult with a college classmate from the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Todd Sweeney (a reverse of "Sweeney Todd," the "Demon Barber" who, in the British horror tales of the 1800s and later in Stephen Sondheim's iconic Broadway Musical, slices the throats of his victims with a razor, much like a surgeon slices open patients with a scalpel).

In addition, in that same episode, there's a scene where Craig's wife (played by Daniels' real life wife, Bonnie Bartlett) and he pass through Independence Mall and he notes, "something about this place makes me want to sing and dance," a reference to the fact that Daniels played the role of John Adams in both the original Broadway stage production and the motion picture version of the musical "1776."

The writers on St. Elsewhere kept themselves, their cast and their audience constantly entertained with these amusing bits of trivia, dropped in at unexpected moments, and there were plenty of such references, probably several in each episode, after awhile.

On to the point. In the final episode of the program, in the final moments of that episode, we cut to an establishing shot of snow falling on the edifice of St. Eligius Hospital, and then, that image appears to shake slightly. Cut to: A scene in a neat and small apartment where Tommy Westphall, the autistic child of Dr. Westphall is seated on the floor, playing with an object. His father enters, who we see is not a doctor at all, but a construction worker, complete with lunch pail and hard hat, back from work, building a skyscraper. And Dr. Auschlander, according to this scene, is actually HIS father, Tommy's Grandfather, who was seated and reading a newspaper, watching over his grandson.

When they go wash up for dinner, construction worker Westphall picks up the toy that his son was playing with and places it on top of their television. It was a snow globe of what we recognize as St. Eligius Hospital.

Based on this final scene, many people seem to think that this suggests that everything that occurred on the series "St. Elsewhere" was a product of the mind of Tommy. And, by extension, anything that relates to any program that had any relationship to "St. Elsewhere" would likewise be a part of that imagination.

In fact, there is now a site that takes this theory into great detail! Programs as far-flung as "The Lucy Show" and all versions of "Star Trek" fall into the reality of St. Elsewhere, if you can believe it! The other major show related is NBC's "Homicide: Life On The Street", which is also directly connected through characters that appeared in both series.

Ok. That's a lot to get through, even for a pop-culture freak like me.

You can see the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" elements that are coming to the fore with this, and I think it's amusing to note how different elements of shows can relate to each other. But this theory is completely and laughably bogus. Let me try to explain why.

1. The Ending.

The audience for the final episode of St. Elsewhere was given the information we saw at the end without context. Are we to believe that everything for the run of the series was a lie and the final five minutes was the only truth? Implausible would be more accurate. Who can say that the ending wasn't the part that was imagined by Tommy, wanting Auschlander to be his still living grandfather and his dad to have a "regular hours" job? The fact is, we don't know, and the assumption about what it "really" is has been left completely open to the viewer's interpretation.

As far as "It was all a dream" endings, "The Wizard of Oz" is the only dramatic piece that holds up to scrutiny in that sort of context. Though many other examples exist, somehow that film is the only one that completely "gets away with it." In addition, you have to keep in mind that "The Wizard of Oz" was based on a children's story and was only a couple of hours long. How do you suggest that one hundred and thirty six point nine five hours of a sixty minute long drama for television were "not true" and the final moments were?

ASIDE - See also: CBS's "Newhart," which was one of the most amusing endings of a television show in history. There, that ending worked for several reasons:

a) It's a comedy. The shock value of it and the recognition of it was why it worked so brilliantly, and many people who related to CBS's "The Bob Newhart Show," were pleased to think that this program set at a Vermont B&B really was just a pale imitation to the Chicago psychologist original.

b) Elsewhere and Dallas. The brilliance of the "Newhart" ending could not have happened if the St. Elsewhere ending and the "Dream Season" of CBS's "Dallas" hadn't preceded it. Without those events, perhaps the "Newhart" finale would have worked, but it wouldn't have had the impact, the punch, the power and the recognition that it did within its context.

c) Interpretation. We don't actually have to swallow the fact that Bob Hartley dreamed the entire series, "Newhart." We know it's a joke, a clever way to tie things together and to give the audience one great final laugh. We aren't going to really mull over the points that The Stratford Inn was the result of eating Japanese food before bedtime as we would with a dramatic series. It's a conceit, and a darned funny one, at the expense of these other "dream" programs.

2. Linear thinking Doesn't Work.

When you start trying to linearly link any show that is related to "St. Elsewhere," and assume that it's all simply a part of what Tommy created, it really doesn't fit, just in terms of continuity. Programs that were telecast and viewed decades before Tommy was presumably born are listed as a part of the tapestry being constructed. There's no way to relate these connections directly through this character...

Unless you think that Tommy is God, and has the ability to see into/create the past and the future. Maybe there's something to this, but so far, I haven't seen the "Tommy as God" argument come up specifically.

3. TV Within A TV.

If "St. Elsewhere" is a part of Tommy's imagination, and we are to believe that anything related to a character from some other series that crossed over, a product used, etc. is also a part of that imagination, we have to remember that Tommy is, himself, a television character.

Now, it gets complicated because if Tommy is imagining television, eventually linking all shows (except programs that feature "real" people) to his own, then where is he? Where does Tommy exist? We are expected to believe the content of television is coming from him, but he is television content. It's a paradox. Or is it like that "Energy Ball" episode of NBC's "SCTV", where all of television appears to be devouring itself.

4. Autism.

You have to understand how Autism works and what it does to the mind. Autistic people do not imagine things out of whole cloth. They take the bulk of what happens in their minds from what is around them. To assume that an autistic child would (or even could) create the scenarios, roles, settings for the program is making a Herculean leap with no basis in how we understand the disease to function. Bottom line: Tommy's not that sophisticated, especially if we are to believe that rather than a well-to-do doctor, he had a family of a lower income. However, we can assume he watches a lot of TV. But the question there is does he imagine the programs he watches? What's on that television, anyhow? Did he see the pilot episodes and then imagined all of the events that took place on those programs, like some studio chief or ultimate producer?

Even within the context of that final scene, his father and Auschlander are there as part of Tommy's "reality." What does that mean? They are people in his life who mean something. The very fact that these are people we, as viewers, recognize, even if they aren't exactly playing the roles we know them for, suggests that there must be more "reality" that we did not (and now can never) know from Tommy's POV.

The point is, it's highly likely that there is a percentage of the story that is "true" to a degree, because it would be based on the things that Tommy knew, recognized and had experienced. The exact amount and the specific points of what those things are can never be known, but we do know that it is NOT one hundred percent created by him; we know that some of it is based on the facts as he knows them and as we, the viewers, know them: prime example - Westphall is still his father. So, if the truth of what Tommy is creating isn't complete fiction, then it follows that none of the theory can be accepted, one hundred percent. Scientifically, we would have to toss out the the concept in its entirety.

There is also a reference to some of this stuff from last October and written here, by another "Doubting Tommy" on this very topic.

Like I said, this is an amusing pastime, much like the Kevin Bacon game used to be, but the fact that people are carrying on about it, "mapping" it and relating all these programs back to this one character is a disservice to all of the programs. It's teevee, not the Tommyverse.

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